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Changing the narrative

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CJ Lim’s 'Virtually Venice' project at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004 is still celebrated for its radical East-West narrative and three-dimensional papercut forms.

Changing the narrative

‘Virtually Venice’ – a voice from the East inside the British Pavilion in Venice in 2004.

Credit: All images CJ Lim / Studio 8 Architects

Changing the narrative

Each location in Venice begins life as a two-dimensional sheet of paper and eventually occupies the third dimension.

In 2004, Professor CJ Lim was invited by the British Council to represent the UK at the Venice Architecture Biennale. It was the first time a non-Caucasian architect had exhibited at the British Pavilion and, while Lim didn’t set out to make a political statement, he felt strongly that he should create something that spoke to his own experiences growing up in Malaysia. “I was very keen that it had a voice – not necessarily mine – but a voice from where I come from, from the East.”

Lim, who is Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at The Bartlett School of Architecture, and his practice Studio 8 Architects, created Virtually Venice – a project that still gets talked about at the school today. Lim is fascinated by narrative and so he took a historical tale, of the Venetian Marco Polo and the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, and turned it on its head.

“History is so often written from the Western perspective and this story has manifested itself in films and novels – like Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities – but it was never told from Kublai Khan’s perspective.”

Lim explains: “Polo was smart; he was a liar. He hadn’t visited many cities but he split up little bits of Venice into many, many cities and told stories of them to Kublai Khan to save his neck. Virtually Venice became a reinterpretation of the idea of Venice from an Eastern point of view.”

Without the funding to create sophisticated models or computer renderings, Lim chose to look for an alternative method of fabrication. He decided to use paper – a Chinese invention and arguably one of the most ‘high-tech’ materials of Kublai Khan’s time.

“We went analog,” he explains. “Everything in the exhibit was made using a papercut technique, all cut by hand. Each piece was about A1 size and would have had two people working on it for about three or four days. The pieces were so tiny that we had to use tweezers to place them.”

Flat drawings became three dimensional: the crinoline of women’s gowns – fashionable in the West during Polo’s time and which Kublai Khan would have heard tales of – were used to represent Venice’s Fontuna Pozzo-Pozza (male and female water wells); for the Venice Lido, the beach was woven in lemon grass, which grows abundantly in Southeast Asia, and when you brushed it, “it released this scent so that even the landscape had this distinct Asian smell.”

Changing the narrative

The skin of San Marco Tower comprised of shifting clouds of bird traps, rotating to become chandeliers and suspended dining tables.

Changing the narrative

‘Par Xien Gou Hai’, one of the seven projects in 'Virtually Venice', activates the city – washing lines of communication stitch together pools, buckets, baskets and stepping-stones.

Turning point

The initial reaction from visitors and the industry press, Lim remembers, was bemusement at why he had gone back to such a labour-intensive craft to construct a drawing. “But that was also the start of it – because we were clear about the concept and its relationship to the narrative. Stories should be embedded into the way we think about spaces. Spaces should not just be driven by form making.”

Lim says that the deeper political aspect of the project came more gradually, through the lectures he gave at the time and the book that followed in 2006. “I think it also came gradually to myself. To exhibit at the British Pavilion, I thought: this is as good as it gets, I need to represent myself and my culture.”

What Lim might could not have predicted is that it would become a turning point in his career. “It gave me confidence. It was the first time that I actually tested out ideas that really mattered to me and it helped me establish my intellectual agenda.”

It also led to him being recognised in China and offered master-planning commissions there. He hopes the project has also offered some inspiration over the years for other practitioners operating in a non-Western context. “It has certainly been something that I’ve been keen to discuss with students,” he says.

Reflecting on the architectural landscape of 2004, Lim says that, apart from a certain reverence for Japan, architectural language, history and theory, was mainly about the West. Architecture from the East was always seen as parochial, “a bit of old vernacular, a bit of localism”, not something that could be taken out of Asia onto an international platform.

While progress has been made, he still believes a huge amount of the new buildings in China, for example, are “inappropriate architecture imported from the West” using construction ideas and materials that lack a vernacular understanding of the Asian context, and are often “totally inappropriate for the climate”.

Asia, he says, does not need to copy the West. “I think there’s still a long way to go to convince people that it doesn’t matter where they come from or who they are, they have a lot to offer.”

The School of Architecture is internationally renowned for innovative research and teaching that is academically rigorous, critically informed, design-led and interdisciplinary. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/architecture

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